The New Old Town

The most recent 99% Invisible podcast blew my mind. The podcast takes place in Warsaw, specifically in a part of the city called Old Town. During World War II, over 80% of the city was destroyed by German bombs. Most of the city was then rebuilt by the Soviets, in the Soviet utilitarian ideal–fast, cheap, functional, ugly. One district, however, was rebuilt with an eye to history. From 99% Invisible:

But when it came to the historic district of Warsaw—the Old Town and a long connecting     section called the Royal Route—they decided not just to rebuilt, but to restore. Builders would use the same stones, and use special kilns to make special bricks to preserve its authenticity. After six years of reconstruction, the new Old Town was opened. Poles were ecstatic to have it back. Even in the West, it was seen as a triumph of the human spirit.

Incredible, right? Well, the plot thickens:

Despite the push for authenticity, it turned out that the major inspiration for the rebuilding of the city were the paintings of an 18th Century Italian artist named Bernardo Bellotto.  Bellotto was a “vedutista,” one who  specialized in the Venetian style of painting in which cityscapes are depicted realistically, with their details and documented precisely. But Bellotto had a tendency to make “improvements” on the cities he painted, relying as much on his artistic license as what he actually observed.  The paintings from the 18th Century were never meant to match reality—they were supposed to be better than reality.

So the new Old Town, isn’t a reconstruction at all. Its the manifest of an imaginary, idealized space.

This is fascinating to me in terms of creative nonfiction. Just as Bellotto improved upon reality to beautify his painting, an essayist make similar moves to capture “emotional realism.”

I’m reminded of Marianne Moore’s poem entitled “Poetry.” She writes of “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” Something similar is going on here in Warsaw. It’s an imaginary past with buildings in it.

I guess that’s where the metaphor ends for me. It’s an interesting thought experiment, though. What if a world was (re)created to the specifications of one of your essays? Would it be more emotionally real than the original experience? Or would it be something altogether different? It has a sort of uncanny feeling just thinking about it.

In any event, listen to the podcast. Think about it. Let me know what you think.

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The Most Boring Opening Sentence… Maybe Ever.

I’m working on a revision of an essay I’m both preparing for workshop in class next week, and planning to test drive at a reading on Saturday night. This piece grew out of an in-class writing exercise where I adopted the structure of Katherine Riegel’s essay, “Silence.”

For those who may be reading who aren’t part of our 505 class, each section of the essay begins with “This is about…” and each section takes on the different perspectives those in the story might have of one event. I wanted to capture this feel, the writing of one moment in time from varied perspectives. Now that I’m working on a revised draft, I’m trying to break the scaffolding I set up by borrowing the framework of Riegel’s essay.

I’m finding the most difficult part to be my entry (and exit, but that’s a whole new conversation) into this one moment in time. my first draft of this essay began “This is about a boy I tried to love.” Not the most original sentence in the world, but it did, in a way encapsulate the entire moment, sum up the experience I was about to write about in the most simple of terms.

Now the structure I’m working with keeps all of the story, all of the perspectives inside the confines of a car on the road to Vegas…but now this essay has the most boring opening sentence…maybe ever, and I don’t want that sentence to be the first thing I read on Saturday.

So I’m asking for a little pre-workshop help from anyone who has suggestions or recommendations. I’ll post the first two paragraphs as they’re working right now, and if anyone is interested in reading the whole draft for me before I read on Saturday, please let me know; I’d love the feedback.

Dan and I were settled into his brand new silver sedan, headed for a Hospitality Job Fair in Vegas.  I’m positive he had no idea I’d been working toward a moment like this one for a just over a year. My off-hand recommendation that we should drive down together and hand out some resumes, do some networking sounded nothing like “Hey babe, why don’t we blow this town and go spend the weekend in a hotel room in Sin City.” Anything that direct would have sent the boy running, and that was nowhere in my plan.

Along with finishing my hotel management degree, getting married was on my list of things to do, and meeting Dan allowed me to multi-task. (I’m nothing if not efficient.) He was twenty-eight and never been kissed.  Before he could drink his Dr. Pepper from the vending machine outside our Hospitality Management Theory classroom, he shook it up and cracked the cap to let most of the carbonation hiss away. “I have to get rid of the bubbles,” he’d tell me when I looked at him sideways, as if drinking flat soda was perfectly normal and I was the one acting strangely. We sat together in a couple of classes, trading management strategies and front desk horror stories. After that he didn’t seem to notice how often we were together or that I had chosen him.

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My Father’s Daughter Or: Why I Never Write About My Mother

In class we have had multiple discussions about how we as writers can define the boundaries of truth in the genre of nonfiction. Some of you may know, but I will be panelist at AWP next month with Kelly Magee, Lee Gulyas, and undergraduate Zackrie Vinczen. The panel is going to focus on the way students work to construct their own view on “truth” in a classroom atmosphere based on the views of their teachers and current literary conversations and controversies.

I think it’s an interesting twist on the standard “how do we define truth” question because it focuses on this: We all define truth differently for our own writing, and that construction is formed on what we have read and learned from others. At this point, I feel for the most part comfortable with my version of truth, with the contract I have established in my writings. But yes, my views have shifted over the years, and I have gleaned from each mentor a different perspective on truth, and how we define the “non” in nonfiction.

Last summer I studied with Dinah Lenney at Centrum, and the conversation in our workshop wasn’t as concerned with the contract between writer and reader, but the contract between writer and loved ones. Some of the other women (as luck would have, the class was all women) in the class were writing about family members–brothers, parents, children—and voiced questions about how much they should share about the lives of others. The questions of pseudonyms came up, even “Am I allowed to write about this person?” And just like with the question of truth, each writer has their own contract they have written. Dinah said she stopped writing about her children when they became teenagers, that she doesn’t write about her husband, and that parents are fair game—no matter what. Brenda touched on it in class that if you write about a loved one, it should be a writing to understand, not writing to indict them.


For me, I find it harder to write about my immediate family. Instead, I write about my lovers and formers, because quite frankly they knew what they were getting themselves into. I don’t keep it a secret that I write nonfiction—acting as some sort of undercover journalist looking for a scoop, collecting an interesting cast of characters to populate my essays.  That isn’t to say I don’t ask permission. I’ll let Brandon read moments I have written about him, allow him to say whether or not he wants that memory to become literary. I called a former boyfriend to ask if I could use snippets from letters he wrote me in an essay I was writing about the difference between Skype and love letters. These people mean something to me, so I don’t write about them to air dirty laundry, but instead to frame moments.

I have always been closer to my father’s side of the family—my many cousins and extended relatives with stories that not only shaped the way I was raised, but shaped the landscape of Washington. The Wood family traces back roots five generations in Washington state, and three of those generations worked as loggers for Blodel Donovan. My great grandfather married a woman whose family helped found the Fairhaven settlement, the old homestead still up in Birch Bay. My father remembers stories told by an auntie about as a young child, moving west by covered wagon from Minnesota while Abraham Lincoln was president. I have heard these stories so often growing up that they have become folk legends for me, as fantastical as Paul Bunyan and his big blue ox.

My mother has one brother, and I have no cousins on that side of the family. Most of my maternal extended family lives back east, in Georgia, or in the Midwest. My mother’s father was in jail for most of my childhood; a convicted counterfeiter, he went into the witness protection program upon his release. I met him only once, a Thanksgiving he spent with us just after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I later learned from my mother that he had broken rules in contacting my mother at all. It’s only been within the last few years that my grandmother has offered up family history, seemingly out of spite for the interest I’ve taken in my paternal lineage. “You get your love of science from my brother you know,” or, “Did you know that my uncle has written a book? He has a website even.”

I find it hard to write about my mother. To write about how she hid the fact that she smoked from the majority of our family, until she quit. How after quitting smoking she increased her drinking. I don’t like to write about the fact that my mother posts pictures of cats on Facebook when she’s drunk, with odd captions completely unintelligible. These things feel like airing dirty laundry to me—in my writing at least. I’m a candid person by nature, but do feel that some subjects are not meant for the page. But what then could I write about my mother? Would it be interesting for the sake of an essay to write about my mother being PTA president and the time I rode with the principle in his personal vehicle to pick up a visiting teacher from Scotland? It seems to precious to me, too American dream fulfilled.

I write about my father in contexts that go against the grain. I write about my father because at sixteen I spent Friday nights wrenching on my Jeep. I write about my father because it was his dusty brewing equipment he helped me pull out of the shed when I started brewing beer. I write about my father because I can sit next to him in a car, not needing to say a word to him, as the landscape slips past us, and remember him bringing me an ice cream cone and balloon on every one of my birthdays, and that he would kiss me goodbye without waking me every morning before he left for work.

So my question is this: Are parents really fair game? I’m really interested to hear about how all of you honor the truth, but also honor your relationships with your loved ones.


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The New Brontes?

I’m excited to announce a new project. My brother (Andrew Lohafer) and I are embarking on a collaboration! My brother is very much a writer in his own right; previously, he has focused on both fiction and journalism. However, he has also worked within the realm of creative nonfiction. I remember being really intrigued by a piece he showed me over the summer. In it, he described the family car we had growing up. His descriptions were striking, but even more than that, they showed me a completely different side to our upbringing, details I hadn’t even thought of in years.

I’m interested in what will happen if Andrew and I begin to recount our childhood experiences. What will he have noticed that I have forgotten? As the older sister, what information do I have that could help him understand our family’s history? Furthermore, how will our discussion contribute to the never ending conversation about what is considered “true” in this genre?

Since I’ve already shared my work with this class, I thought it would be useful to present you with one of Andrew’s drafts. This piece was based off a prompt that we used: in your piece answer a question that you don’t reveal to the reader, and start every line with “This is about”. He wanted me to tell you that this is still a first draft, so feedback is of course appreciated.

As the title of this post suggests, I like to imagine that my brother and I are about to embark on a writing journey that will inevitably lead us to fame and fortune. Hey, our father is a minister, too, which means we’re basically the Brontes already, right?

-Jessica Lohafer


Andrew TJ Lohafer

This is about two burns that were left on my wrists as the last of 2012 moved across a highway for nothing. This is about red and black blisters turned so no one could see while I toasted and cheered, and waved the year away. This is about thirteen hours of fear that myself hospitalized, criminalized and ostracized; sleeping on concrete.

This is about early months and morning drinking and coughing blood as the back of my hospital gown hung open; the brim of my hat pulled low. This is about a closed throat, tubes and the glue from bandages cover my arms like a shameful tattoo.

This is about big eyes that watch a man, big eyes that canvass a scene of irreproachable midnight phone calls; keeping everything aligned as if irises could be constellations.
This is about favorite notes and chords, favorite notes and chords that could all be taken away just for the slightest second of a fleeting chance to here them through a different voice; other than my own.

This is about falling and skinning your knees on 9th and Stewart; the city looking the same even as everything is upside down. This is about becoming a goddamn man, telling your Father his Father is dead; drinking whiskey walking through the empty streets of the CD looking for fights and friends.

This is about watching the rocks grow, the city move and all at the same time Olive tower shrouded by darkness-the pinnacle of a midnight walk through love.

This is about Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, Sylvia Plath, very much so those three and a greater significance of a true feeling of betrayal-an honest and true feeling allowing no respite. This is about maybe the beats, Gonzo, poetry or anything that could have helplessly been created while sitting among sixteen projectors at two am.

This is about the greatest panic, the big one.  The great panic that cause vomit, horrible thoughts, fainting, making a fool of yourself in public, making a fool of yourself with a women, a great panic that has no explanation, a great panic that has people staring at you on you twenty first birthday, panic that thins the blood and causes one to loose hair and the ability to not sleep for half a week; walking truly not alive through a crowd at a mall with roommates. This is about not being able to speak the language you have learned for years, cooper the only taste in your mouth, ever footstep feels like an accomplishment.
This is about, panic.

This is about the swift ambition to poison yourself.
This is about great strides trying to poison others.
This is about killing parts of everyone’s body.
This is about walking, always walking, hopefully not alone.
This is about alcohol, wanting a drink, taking the drink, then relying on the one sheer truth that the city and our great adolescence taught me or you; that giving up has and always will be an option.

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The Trouble with Naming (or something)

LeAnne and I have been talking about co-authoring a post on this lovely blog of ours for a couple of weeks at least. She initially approached me with a vague idea about anonymity and the purported anonymity of Alcoholics Anonymous, which, in my experience, and LeAnne seemed at least partially to agree, isn’t very anonymous.

We also talked about the need for a word to describe items that you buy when you really need to get one thing but are too embarrassed to buy only that one thing. There isn’t a word for the chapstick, bagels, and bananas that you buy to cover up the condoms in your basket, but there should be.

On the other hand, there are some things that have many names, and which seem to carry significance beyond what’s intended, like names of beauty products, something my thinking seemed to naturally extend to in our discussion of purchasing things like pads/tampons and hair removal products.

We’ve emailed some ideas to one another but so far haven’t really gotten anything off the ground, and since we seem to have stalled a bit on this, we’re hoping our colleagues can help make some of the connections. What are the connections between these things that seem to require a name, but don’t have one, and things which have so many names they become some indication of the type of person you are? How do those things connect to naming and anonymity, in the case of arenas where we are supposed to be anonymous, how does this make us think about the Facts of the Matter essay published (supposedly) anonymously?

Here’s what we’ve been playing with so far:


It takes me a while to find the hair removal cream I’m looking for. I haven’t had to buy it before, but more and more now I’m starting to see my mother’s face in the mirror. Recently I noticed I seemed to have some more fuzz above my lip than I’m used to, and I flashed back to memories of seeing my mom with a strip of white cream above her lip. Somehow I know it’s Sally Hansen hair removal cream.

Finally, I find the little orange box and make my way to the front of the store. I scan the rows and, of course, the only available checker is a man in his mid twenties. “Oh, I have to get something else now,” I think, and wonder if I need anything from another aisle. I end up with a Kind bar, Style magazine and the Sally Hansen cream in my basket. I’m still somewhat apprehensive approaching the checker and wish there were a female checker somewhere, but I think, “Grow up. He probably won’t even know what it is.”

But of course he does know what it is and I can tell in his stiff and quick movements that he’s somewhat embarrassed for me, too. Or am I paranoid? Is he looking at me, trying to see where the unwanted facial hair is? I pay quickly, leave, and stuff the Kind granola bar in my mouth before I shift my car into gear.

Why isn’t there a word to describe those superfluous purchases meant as a kind of disguise?

(One day I was behind a girl at the supermarket checkout who was buying Midol, tampons, a bottle of wine, a bar of chocolate, and a magazine. I was impressed with her no-nonsense demeanor and carefree attitude about this pronouncement: “I am on my period and I am going to crawl into a bottle of wine. See you in 5-7 days.”)



Just the other day I made a purchase meant to suggest that I was merely at the WWU bookstore fulfilling my various needs, not one specifically.

But it was one specifically.

The tampon dispenser in women’s restroom in the VU had taken hold of my quarter and refused to either return it or do its job, and as I knelt in front of it, trying to dislodge the quarter and telling it, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” I thought I might start to cry.

But I held it together and went to the bookstore, which had what I really wanted: pads.

(Are pads the Yahoo mail of the “feminine needs” world? I still have a Yahoo account and I still prefer pads. But I’m less attached to that email account, and I know how its name in an inbox can mark me as technologically slow to adapt – which I am. Pads, on the other hand, are a legit option. I don’t think the analogy is perfect – maybe pads are the slightly clumsier sister? The girl who can’t go swimming? – but it interests me).

Anyway, I also grabbed a travel-sized pouch of tissue paper for my teaching folder. In 4 and a half quarters, I’ve only had one student cry during a conference (and it was because I told her she was failing the class), but I told myself that this was a worth y purchase, that I was being a good and prepared teacher.

But it was truly just a disguise.

I’m 33 years old, but sometimes I’m still unprepared for my period, and then once it’s there, I treat it like a surprise houseguest who needs to be everywhere I am at all times but is also mute.

Not that I’ve ever had such a guest, but you know what I mean.

Maybe we could call these superfluous purchases Diversion Consumerism. Or Crowd-Based Image Control.   

What do you all think? 🙂




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One of these days I’m going to write that story…

I say this every time my mother or one of her sisters gets around to the Blackberry Wine Story.  I’ve taken to calling them kitchen stories, these snippets about the Harris and Woodward women that make up my maternal line. They’re not the stories we tell at parties in mixed company, but the ones that get murmured over baking Christmas cookies or the basting of Thanksgiving turkey. They are female mythology handed down like recipes, like mason jars turning blue with age, like the table cloth that’s so ugly and dated it’s cool again.

I can’t seem to tell this story to my satisfaction, maybe because I’m still honing my skills and the words just aren’t right yet, or maybe I haven’t gotten what I need from it yet so it haunts me.  The telling is difficult because I wasn’t there. As a writer of creative nonfiction I feel an obligation to the truth but all I have is the story as myth, as family history.  I’ve tried it as fiction, as a stage play, and (to date) in half a dozen different essay forms. I don’t want these women I come from to feel like an invention.  It’s the blood of them, the heart and the breath and the laughter I’m always trying to write.

For a while only stolen female moments hovered at the edges of my stories, but lately, as it has in my real life, even the furniture is showing up in other places, returning to the edges of things and slipping in while my attention is elsewhere.  I don’t know how to tell these kitchen stories without context, or how much context they need anymore, but they’re the stories I keep telling.

This is the latest version of the Blackberry Wine Story which I wrote as the introduction to an essay about writing. I’d like to get this to a place where it stands alone, without too much explaining, but (as you can see from all this introduction) I’m still not entirely sure how to frame it.

Three women sit around a gold-flecked Formica pedestal table with aluminum flashing. The yellow and white kitchen is spotless. The countertops and cupboard faces shine; the black and white checked linoleum has been dutifully waxed. There are no men in the house. They are disappeared in to their workdays at the railroad, the steel plant, or in the case of my great-uncle Carl, on the golf course with friends. For these few hours female laughter is unrestrained. The women breathe deep, relax, allow the children to clatter in and out of swinging screen doors into the summer sun.

Eva is presiding over lunch with her daughters—my grandmother Vivian, the faithful daughter, the one who stayed close to home. It is her four children that hover at the screen doors, swing from the cherry trees, dare their two California cousins to perform the forbidden act of wading out into the Provo river canal. Vivian’s sister Lillian is visiting. Lil ran off to California with her high-finance husband. She left her Mormon faith to support her husband’s much more lucrative communion with the Crystal Cathedral. She doesn’t own one homemade shirt-waist cut from Woolworth’s Calico. She wears pedal pushers and open-toed sandals. She and Carl drove in from California in the white Cadillac. She brought with her fresh strawberries and a jug of Mogen David Blackberry wine.

When my aunt Judy, Vivian’s oldest daughter gets home from beauty school she can hear them laughing from the sidewalk. She finds the kitchen counters strewn with flour, the tin of bacon grease kept by the stove is up-ended on the floor.  Cold coffee is splashed in the kitchen sink. My great-grandmother Eva is standing barefoot on a yellow vinyl kitchen chair, using a broom to swipe at the sticky globs of biscuit dough Viv and Lil keep throwing toward the ceiling. Vivan’s youngest, my mother Bonnie has collected the biscuits that didn’t stick. She plays with them, patting them into animal shapes not suitable for baking. The wine is gone except for the remnants in juice glasses, tipped and dripping into the flour on the kitchen table.

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FOR SALE ’84 Toyota LandCruiser FJ-60

Hey, Matt! Thanks for your interest in the LandCruiser. I’m glad to hear that you’re a TLC person yourself, and I’m happy to think of my FJ-60 going to a good Toyota-loving home! I think it’d look great parked next to your FJ-80!!

In answer to your questions . . . let’s see . . . I’m only selling it because I’m moving out of the country indefinitely and I don’t want to store it. Otherwise I’d keep it. The Cruiser has a three-inch lift on custom springs from Cool Cruisers of Texas. The steel bumpers and rock sliders were made custom by a guy in South Weber. It’s been repainted and the upholstery was redone just before I bought it in 2007, so it looks great cosmetically. (Sorry you couldn’t tell too well from the pics.) There is some rust (aka cancer) inside the doors, but that’s inevitable. I don’t think you’ll find any ‘84s without cancer in the doors. There were a few holes in the rear quarter panels, too, but they were fixed before I bought it. Overall, it’s in great shape for a Utah Cruiser.

And, yes, I did pay to have the motor swapped in the summer of 2009. I have all the paperwork, in case you want to see it. As a potential buyer, I’m sure you’re experiencing a little bit of trepidation, and you’re probably wondering why I swapped the motor in the first place!! I’ll be honest with you, because I know the anxiety that surrounds buying a used vehicle, especially a vehicle of this nature. Also, it sounds like you know your TLCs already, so there’s probably no use in trying to pull a fast one on you!!

Sure, it’s true that the 2F straight six motor Toyota put in the FJ-60s will run forever. But, there is one crucial detail that you have to remember: you HAVE to stay on top of the oil ALWAYS. One unique feature of this particular motor is that it was designed with a dry sump oil circulation system. This means that the oil tends to settle down into the reservoir when the car is sitting or when it’s running at low RPMs for too long. If you don’t keep the oil up at the recommended level, that whole TOYOTAS RUN FOREVER idea goes out the window, so to speak.

So, when you drive your 1984 FJ-60 TLC all summer long, including tri-weekly swimming trips with your friends to Hyrum Dam, frequent trips up Logan Canyon to take the dog swimming in the river, and a backpacking trip to the Wind River Range of Wyoming, AND you don’t check the oil regularly, you’re going to end up burning a lot more oil than you think. Later that season when you get upset with your girlfriend and take off up Millville Canyon with a couple of your buddies late at night, you’re going to burn even more oil than you would ever think. I’m telling you, Cruisers burn oil. When you get up to the point where the road splits and one branch heads toward Logan Peak, when you’re in 4-LOW and creeping over large rocks at steep angles, the motor is going to struggle to circulate the insufficient amount of oil it’s working with.

At the point where you have to crawl up and over a particularly large rock, and the tires are spinning and you’re grinding over the rock on your sliders, the motor is going to straight up cut out. All the lights will still be on and the fuel gauge will be up, so you’ll know it’s not an electric problem or a fuel problem. You’ll assume that, at least. If you try to start it again, it’s going to sound like the starter is picking up before it emits a solid CLICK. It’ll sound like this: grrr-ree-ree-ree-ree-GRRRCK. grrr-ree-ree-ree-ree-GRRRCK. ETC.

For the record, this is what you do when the DAMNED thing won’t start again: you joke with your friends a little bit about driving a beater car, then ask your friends to get out and spot you for the descent; you ease off the rock you’re perched on; you cuss a little bit, casually; you coast backward, downhill, to a point where the road opens up enough to allow the performance of what we’ll call THE REVERSE SPIN MOVE OF DEATH; you have to get up enough speed to allow you to whip the vehicle around in such a way that you’ll start rolling forward once you’ve executed SAID MOVE (imagine something like a buttonhook play in football); DON’T run over the friend who’s spotting you and DON’T coast off the road into the trees.

Once you’re turned around and heading downhill, you can try to jump-start the Cruiser, but you’ll just grind along in the gravel. You’ll say something to the extent of WHAT THE HELL?! You’ll attribute the sliding to a lack of traction. Keep coasting, bombing through the flats even if it sounds like you’re going to rattle to pieces, until you get to the paved road into Millville. You’ll think about how much a new starter costs, cuz that’s what you’ll blame this whole mishap on. When you hit the pavement and try to jump the Cruiser again, and the wheels keep locking up, this is when the MOTHER . . . F***ERS are going to start issuing forth from the pit of your stomach: this is when it will dawn on you that the motor has seized because the oil was too low. Too hot, not enough oil, too much strain on the motor. No more DAMNEDs, HELLs, or even BASTARD-SON-OF-A-BITCHs. It’s time to pull all the stops, if you will. This is when your dad’s voice will drift into your mind: THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS. This is when you’ll start cursing yourself for being so careless. There will be a slight tinge of apprehension of what’s to come and how much it’s going to cost, but you’ll mostly just be angry at this point. Angry at yourself, primarily.

When you’re almost to the Maverick station on the highway, the road is going to flatten out. At this point, you will wait till the car is down around 15 MPH, so you and your two friends will have to slide out and push it to the parking lot. Then you can call someone to come tow you back to your apartment. You will joke about your prowess in coasting down an entire mountain in neutral as you run in to buy a Gatorade or whatever sounds good.

Note: when you get reception and realize that your girlfriend has called and texted several times, already concerned about you and thinking that you’re avoiding her cuz you were upset earlier, don’t tell her PAM DIED. She will not remember that your license plate reads 096 PAM, nor that you dubbed the Cruiser PAM. A text reading PAM DIED will only confuse and bother her. And, when you try to clarify by texting THERE WAS A HORRIBLE ACCIDENT UP MILLVILLE AND PAM IS DEAD. BE HOME SOON, the communication breakdown will only get worse.

Note: actually, don’t sweat too much over what you’re going to say to your girlfriend because there’s a good chance that she’ll end up dumping you for someone who drives a cool European car. Some sweet-bro like that or some shit. Yeah, some kid who drives a Volkswagen GTi and says stuff like YEAH, BRO, FOR SURE, BRO. You’ll probably never know the exact truth about that whole thing, and you probably won’t care because she made you feel like such a chump and you’ll be totally over her anyway.

Don’t worry, though!! The fact that the motor seized at such a low speed means that nothing was wrecked outside of the engine. No damage to the transmission or anything. At least that’s what I’ve been telling myself.

Note: plan to spend about $2500 on a used 2F motor and labor. And, when a friend of a friend tells you that he’ll do the work for free, don’t listen to him because he’s LYING. He’ll later be dumped by his business partners because he’s SHADY and DISHONEST. You will end up paying them to do the work anyway. Just go straight to them. They’ll be really nice and you’ll all joke about how the aforementioned business partner was SKETCHY.

A $2500 mistake. Worse things have happened. Worse things will happen. Right?! Right.

Oh, I forgot to mention that the tires are only about ten months old. I go with the Big O All Terrains because they’re good tires with an EXCEPTIONAL warranty. A lot of people go with the BFG ATs, but those are significantly more expensive and they don’t have a warranty.

I’m also throwing in a tailgate and hatch, both in perfect condition, and a roof rack. You could probably get some good money out of the tailgate/hatch, but I’ve been too lazy to post them.

Let me know if you have any more questions! Thanks, Matt, and talk to you soon!!

Lee Olsen, Fellow TLC Enthusiast

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Circling Around the Truth?

Now that we’re in week three and I’ve found myself a little more comfortable with being involved in actual writing outside of teaching, I find myself in a small dill-pickle of sorts.  While I found myself teaching the inductive essay today and asking my students just to “try” the new format and begin with a representative example that most readily could start with a personal experience of theirs, a student quickly asked, “So I just tell you what’s happened to me and why it’s sad and what I learned?”  I was a bit shocked by this, but then realized I may have invited what I will call genre stereotyping; the genre of non-fiction in my opinion has been a bit stereotyped to be one that yes, included memoir as a staple, but often one that is known for exposing the personal.  For exposing a good, detailed story by various standards.  But for the sake of exposing the personal, I cannot get this student’s comment out of my mind.  How do I answer this student–how do I make certain these assumptions are not being executed in my own writing?

Does the genre of non-fiction need to be defended by its inhabitants or am I, like my writing in transition and draft, becoming defensive of my right to be personal?  Could it be instead that this assumption the student shared comes from…reading or not reading?  I’m not exactly sure what I want to call into question right, I’m just not prepared.  Although this pattern of exploration having to be related to a “sad” moment or story I’ve often found is also present in the genre of poetry.  And I find myself struggling with the concept of writing personally that connects–that spirals outward to an audience rather than stays simply for the writer.  But this struggle to invite the reader into the world of my piece is always on my mind–a conscious effort and a learned tactic, so why is it that I still find personal writing, simply starting a non-fiction poem with, “It seems I’ve collected dead fathers as others collect quarters” a moment that I plan to spiral outward but now am second-guessing not the material we are circulating and conversing about in class,the how-to of this spiral, but am second-guessing what I can do for this student.  How has this happened?

Please comment, respond, share…

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The Rules of the Open Mic

While this piece is admittedly new, (like brand new! like an hour old new!) I feel compelled to get it out into the world of the internet due to its content. My friend Jack McCarthy was an incredible writer, and I hope to do all I can to introduce more people to the power of his words.

1.) Don’t apologize for your poetry.

In the beginning, there was bad poetry.
Nearly unjustifiable. Spiral notebooks full of it. At sixteen years old, I was a master of emotional regurgitation; I saw something, felt something, wrote something. I existed pretty happily within this loop until I turned seventeen and discovered the open mic. My paper thin, ticking, antique, once forgotten, beautiful and strange, heart, burst, into a thousand song lyrics. There was a room of people who wanted to hear my work. Never having been to an open mic before, I imagined it was a lot like VH1′s Behind the Music. The performance wasn’t just about the piece I would read; it was also imperative that I share my creative process. I would lock myself in my room and practice what I would say to my adoring fans. “This poem (brushes bangs across face) is about that moment when you realize that everything you’ve once loved is a lie. You know, (looks up wistfully) that moment.” My imaginary listeners attended to every word, eager to hear what sage advice I could offer them about love, the girl who had never successfully procured a date, much less told any boys that her lighthouse, refuge, rusted trumpet of a heart, had been interested in them in the first place.

When I finally attended the reading, I quickly realized this would not be my opportunity to reminisce in the tragedy of my adolescence, but an opportunity to read one poem, maybe two. I also needed to read in the first set, since I still had curfew and needed to be home by ten.

2.) Turn off your cell phones; that shit is obnoxious.

I don’t know when I first met my friend Jack, but I do remember the first time we competed against each other in a poetry slam. Somehow, I had made it to the final round. This might have been in part due to the fact that my youth group leader was one of the judges, but she promised she was judging fairly. If memory serves, by the third round, I had used up all of my “good” material. I think I had to dig into the Taylor arsenal, the purple notebook containing every distressing detail of our non-love affair, he being yet another young man I had accidentally not professed my love to, but who had gone on to destroy the summer of 2004, all the same. The poem wasn’t even a page long, too short, really, for a poetry slam, and it didn’t score very highly.

Now, Jack might not have looked like a credible threat. He was in his sixties and had a gray ponytail. I was too amped up on my grande hot chocolate and clear shot at fame, to notice who I was really up against. I vaguely remember knowing that he was important, one of those poets who only read in the second round. He approached the mic and began a simple story about being beat up by a girl when he was a child. The audience loved it. He described crying to his father, ashamed to be crying about a girl, and asking his dad what he should do. Jack killed the punchline with his father’s response, “Hit her back.”

The audience was really going now, getting hysterical at the trials of little “Jackie, the first born”. I knew then I had lost. But I kept listening, as eager as anyone else. And when Jack’s poem became about always wanting a son, I should have known to keep my guard up. I had a teacher once describe Mark Twain’s humor almost ominously, saying, “Any time Twain has you laughing, check for your wallet.” I should have checked for my wallet. Because when Jack rounded the corner of that last stanza, bringing us into the delivery room of his infant son who would die shortly after being born, I was demolished. We were demolished. The last lines of the poem were, “when Joan went into labor they said/the baby would be born dead./But he wasn’t: very briefly,/before he died, I heard him cry.”

3.) Keep your poems to three minutes.

If memory serves, up against each other again, Jack once said to me, “Someday, Jessica, you will beat me in a poetry slam, but that day is not today.” It wasn’t arrogance, it was accuracy. I never could beat Jack, and I don’t know that I should have been able to. We weren’t really competitive with each other. If anything, he began to be a mentor to me. He, a retired Irish Catholic, and me, a retired Irish Lutheran, we seemed to understand each other. I wanted to be half the writer he was, and so I would email him. Sometimes about writing and more often about life. My spiral notebooks of heartbreak became our correspondence; after my three and a half year “sure thing” ended, I wrote him, pleading for advice on how to move forward. He responded gently, reassured me of my life’s potential, saying, “Willie Nelson said, ‘Ninety-nine percent of the world’s lovers are not with their first choice. That’s what makes the jukebox play.’ This feels shattering right now because you thought you were in the other 1% and you’re not. Welcome to the human race, Jessica. Come on down.”

He was a writer. A real life, honest to god, writer. The kind that has a schedule and sticks to it. Even after moving out of my terrible poetry phase, I still seemed to focus on the attention, the validation that came from reading to an audience. Jack was different. He was writing for his audience, but not like I was. He seemed to truly care for them. Sometimes, if I was lucky, he would share his writing tricks with me. Once he told me, “If you want your audience to cry, you have to make them laugh first. That way, they won’t be expecting it. You’ll be able to get through to them.” Also, “Take notes. Come to the open mic to hear everyone else, don’t just sit there waiting to read your own work.”

4.) You will get from this reading, what you put into this reading.

Jack said to start with the jokes first, so here goes.
Two poets walk into a bar, and my friend Jack died last week.
I have never been good at punchlines.

Visiting him a couple of days before he passed, my friend Ryler gave him a stack of poems he’d just written. Jack, confined to his bed and frequently out of breath, looked at Ryler’s work and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll get you some notes on these.” It’s okay, that was a joke. He would want you to laugh at that. Smirking, I added, “Yeah, Jack. I don’t think you’ve done enough work. If you could just do a little more before you go, that would be best.”

Before we all left, Jack told us to take any books from his personal library that we might want. Robert got a copy of Ryler’s first chapbook. Flipping through it, we discovered that Jack had rated the poems, using a star system, two stars for this poem, four for this one. This was funny enough on its own. But returning home with my copy of New and Selected Poems by Thomas Lux, I discovered that Jack had rated his poems, too. Two stars for “I Love You Sweetheart” and only one star for “Wife Hits Moose.” To Jack, all poets were created equal. We all deserved feedback. He was listening. He was taking notes.

5.) Clap every poet to the stage.

When I was twenty four, I understood loss. It was the home I had made with a man, now not my home, and still only ten blocks away. It was the fifth job I had applied for after my bachelor’s degree, that I wouldn’t get. The Lutheran faith I could not find my way back to. This hollowing out, this strain. The difference, though, was in that these were places I could get to again. Eventually, I would make amends with my ex, my career path, my upbringing. I would fill four more journals with the never ending saga of my post-modern, third wave, lamppost lifeboat of a heart. The poetry would get only moderately better.
But to lose Jack, is to know loss. A man who would teach me how to write, and accidentally, by extension, how to love, and eventually how to die. He really did it well, so let’s give him five stars for ability to leave this life with grace, and one star for timing. If you knew him, you know that he left instructions for all of this. I am reading his work. I am taking notes. I am listening.

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A Hair Monologue

So, this is an early attempt of mine, circa college, at a creative nonfiction monologue. It is probably painfully obvious that I was, at the time of writing, acquiring a BA in gender and women’s studies and theater. Other insight into 20 year-old-me would include my deep admiration for Tim Miller (queer performance artist extraordinaire who writes autobiographical work, one of the NEA 4, etc.)Image

and my growing distrust of The Vagina Monologues (celebrated cultural feminist nonfiction play by Eve Ensler, constructed of interviews with women discussing the links between their bodies and their identities as women…)

I suppose I am sharing this to raise some questions about form. Is this even creative nonfiction? What are the limitations of the monologue, as opposed to the essay? Are there any benefits, or strengths that are unique to this form- in terms of craft? empowerment (if that’s something we want to think about)? voice? etc? 



A Hair Monologue

If my life were a performance, and as it turns out it is, or so Judith Butler keeps telling me, I know what the central plot question would be. Like Hamlet and his epic indecisiveness, I too have my own unanswerable query:

“To be hairy, or not to be hairy: That, is the question.” 

This is my soliloquy. The crux of this dramatic conflict is, like most good theatre, quite simple: I am ashamed when I shave my legs, because I’m supposed to be a feminist, and I am ashamed when I don’t, because I am supposed to be feminine. This is that same shit that drove Ophelia mad- trying to sort out all the conflicting expectations of the world. Maybe I should just get me to a nunnery and call it a day, because like that infamous Danish prince and his Ophelia, I too have got an enormous cast of characters weighing in with their opinions, completely and inexplicably invested in the status of my body hair; my own personal Rosencrantz and Guildenstern trying to “glean what afflicts me,” if you will. 

Take the character of my former employer, who carefully monitored the length of my armpit hair. Working as his nanny in the summertime, he was known to frequently pepper dialogue about the swimming pool schedule and bedtimes, with questions like:

 “Did you boys know you have the cutest babysitter?” and 
“Do you have a boyfriend? Do you date a lot of older men?” 

One day, sitting in the front seat of his car, the boys tucked safely in the back, he leaned over, and inches from my sunburned face demanded: 

“Can I ask you a personal question?” 

 As if saying no had even stopped him. Everyone was silent, waiting. 

 “Why did you shave your armpits?”

 If this had been a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical I would have slapped him across the face and done a tap dance on the hood of the car. 


This was not that play. It was social realism meant to make the audience squirm. The truth was I didn’t know why I had shaved my armpits for the first time in months, but it sure as hell wasn‘t so this fucker would notice. Who knows? I mean, as Hamlet, I’m constantly deliberating; this shave was just an arbitrary plot point along the way to the denouement.

 It was August. I mumbled something about sweat management, ashamed to be held accountable for my body in such a direct way. There was no escape. Not then, trapped in that car, with the boys’ embarrassed silence, and not ever. Every morning when I get dressed I know that if my hair, or lack of hair is visible, that I might at any moment be required to justify it to the world.

Not all characters are so direct in their confrontations.

For comic relief, I like to throw in frequent interludes of the generic “women on the street who visibly find my leg hair disgusting“ routine. It’s an audience favorite that integrates elements of mime and physical comedy. The scene always plays the same: I’m strutting down the street in my favorite dress, enjoying the sunshine, whistling a tune, feeling lovely. Two women walking the other direction pass me, only to perform a classic double-take, erupting into gasps and giggles:

“Oh. My. God. Did you SEE her LEGS?!”

Sometimes I laugh at them, and feel superior, maybe walk a little taller, playing the part of some hairy supermodel. But inevitably, I feel a twinge of panic in my gut, the inner monologue kicks in: “Is everyone looking? Are they right? Why am I putting myself through this?”

Did I mention that my play is avant-garde? Occasionally it features the odd Kafka-esque dream sequence. I’m on trial, standing before the judge. She is superhuman, enormous, I can not see her face. Leafing through my file, she coolly remarks:

“It says here that you secretly purchased a depilatory over the internet in 2005. Do you deny the charge?”

I spin around, frantically searching the teeming crowd of onlookers for my lawyer. Finding I am alone, I squeak:

“But I’m a Jew. Certainly the law makes allowances for–”

She cuts me off: “The law makes no allowances. It also says here that you have not shaved your armpits since August 2007. Your boss reported you. Do you deny the charge?”

The spotlight is making me dizzy. Confused and pleading, I try calling out 
“End Scene!” but the curtain remains drawn. 

Someone from the audience cries “Off with her Hair!” 

Another screams “No! Down with the man!”

“Silence!” bellows the judge, pounding her gavel. “I hereby sentence you to a low budget, off-off-Broadway production of your life as a Senecan tragedy. Take her away!”

The cast of The Vagina Monologues cheer: “Take her away! We don’t want her anymore!” 

The chorus of attractive heterosexual sailors from South Pacific concur: “She can wash us men right out of her gross, hippy leg hair!” 


This cues the strobe lights and smoke machine, and to the cacophony of booing, I disappear through the trap door, never to be seen again.

Pretty edgy huh?

Clearly, this lifelong performance doesn’t fit neatly into any one genre. As the main character I’m pretty boring, and my development doesn’t follow a graceful arc, it happens in fits and spurts, usually followed by regression. I am no closer to knowing whether to be hairy or not to be hairy than I was when I was sixteen. But, if there is one thing I have learned from a life in the theatre, it’s that sometimes to get closer to the truth, you need to put down the script and improvise. I only hope that in my version, Ophelia doesn’t have to go mad.

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